The Life of John Dryden


George Gilfillan

logo

The text is taken from The Poetical Works of John Dryden, With Life, Critical Dissertation, and Explanatory Notes by George Gilfillan. Ballantyne & Co., 1855.

This web edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.

Last updated Thursday, February 27, 2014 at 14:30.

To the best of our knowledge, the text of this
work is in the “Public Domain” in Australia.
HOWEVER, copyright law varies in other countries, and the work may still be under copyright in the country from which you are accessing this website. It is your responsibility to check the applicable copyright laws in your country before downloading this work.

eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

The Life of John Dryden.

John Dryden was born on the 9th of August 1631, at a place variously denominated Aldwincle, or Oldwincle, All Saints; or at Oldwincle, St Peter’s, in Northamptonshire. The name Dryden or Driden, is from the North. There are Drydens still in the town of Scotland where we now write; and the poet’s ancestors lived in the county of Cumberland. One of them, named John, removed from a place called Staff-hill, to Northamptonshire, where he succeeded to the estate of Canons–Ashby, by marriage with the daughter of Sir John Cope. John Dryden was a schoolmaster, a Puritan, and honoured, it is said, with the friendship of the celebrated Erasmus, after whom he named his son, who succeeded to the estate of Canons–Ashby, and, besides becoming a sheriff of the county of Northamptonshire, was created a knight under James I. Sir Erasmus had three sons, the third of whom, also an Erasmus, became the father of our poet. His mother was Mary, the daughter of the Rev. Henry Pickering, whose father, a zealous Puritan, had been one of the marked victims in the Gunpowder Plot. Dryden thus had connexions both on his father’s and mother’s side with that party, by deriding, defaming, and opposing which he afterwards gained much of his poetical glory.

The poet was the eldest of fourteen children — four sons and ten daughters. The honour of his birth is claimed, as already stated, by two parishes, that of Oldwincle, All Saints, and that of Oldwincle, St Peter’s, as Homer’s was of old by seven cities. His brothers and sisters have been followed, by eager biographers, into their diverging and deepening paths of obscurity — paths in which we do not choose to attend them. Dryden received the rudiments of his education at Tichmarsh or at Oundle — for here, too, we have conflicting statements. It is certain, however, that he was admitted a king’s scholar at Westminster, under the tuition of Dr Busby, whom he always respected, and who discovered in him poetical power. He encouraged him to write, as a Thursday’s night’s task, a translation of the third Satire of Persius, a writer precisely of that vigorously rhetorical, rapidly satirical, and semi-poetical school, which Dryden was qualified to appreciate and to mirror; besides other pieces of a similar kind which are lost. During the last year of his residence at Westminster, and when only eighteen years of age, he wrote one among the ninety-eight elegies which were called forth by the sudden death of Henry Lord Hastings, and published under the title of “Lachrymæ Musarum.” Hastings seems to have been an amiable person, but he was besides a lord, and hinc illoe lachrymæ. We know not of what quality the other tears were, but assuredly Dryden’s is one of very suspicious sincerity, and of very little poetical merit. But even the crocodile tears of a great genius, if they fall into a fanciful shape, must be preserved; and we have preserved his, accordingly, notwithstanding the false taste as well as doubtful truth and honesty of this his earliest poem.

Shortly after, Dryden obtained a Westminster scholarship, and on the 11th of May 1650, entered on Trinity College, Cambridge. His tutor was one John Templer, famous then as one of the many who had attempted to put a hook in the jaws of old Hobbes, the Leviathan of his time, but whose reply, as well as Hobbes’ own book (like a whale disappearing from a Shetland “voe” into the deep, with all the hooks and harpoons of his enemies along with him) has been almost entirely forgotten. At Cambridge, Dryden was noted for regularity and diligence, and took the degree of B.A. in January 1653–4, and in 1657 was made A.M. by a dispensation from the Archbishop of Canterbury. Once, indeed, he was rusticated for a fortnight on account of some disobedience to the vice-master. He resided, however, at his university three years after the usual term; and although he did not become a Fellow, and made no secret, in after days, of preferring Oxford to Cambridge, yet the reason of this seems to have lain, not in any personal disgust, but in some other cause, which, says Scott, “we may now search for in vain.”

Up till June 1654, his father had continued to reside at his estate at Blakesley, in Northamptonshire, when he died, leaving Dryden two-thirds of a property, which was worth, in all, only £60 a-year. The other third was bequeathed to his mother, during her lifetime. With this miserable modicum of £40 a-year, the poet returned to Cambridge, and continued there, doing little, and little known as one who could do anything, till the year 1657. The only records of the diligence of his college years, are the lines on the death of Lord Hastings, and one or two other inconsiderable copies of verses. He probably, however, employed much time in private study.

While at Cambridge, he met with a young lady, a cousin of his own — Honor Driden, daughter of Sir John Driden of Chesterton — of whom he became deeply enamoured. His suit was, however, rejected, although he continued all his life on intimate terms with the family. Miss Driden died unmarried, many years after her poet lover; and like the “Lass of Ballochmyle” with Burns’ homage, learned to value it more after he became celebrated, and carefully preserved the solitary letter which Dryden wrote her.

But now the university was to lose, and the world of London to receive, the poet. In the year 1657, when about six-and-twenty years of age, Dryden repaired to London, “clad in homely drugget,” and with more projects in his head than pence in his pocket. He was first employed by his relative, Sir Gilbert Pickering — called the “Fiery Pickering,” from his Roundhead zeal — as a clerk or secretary. Here he came in contact with Cromwell; and saw very clearly those great qualities of sagacity, determination, courage, statesmanship, insight and genuine godliness, which made him, next to Alfred the Great, the first monarch who ever sat on the English throne. Two years after Dryden came to London, Cromwell expired, and the poet wrote and published his Heroic Stanzas on the hero’s death, which we consider really his earliest poem. When Richard resigned, Dryden, in common with the majority of the nation, saw that the Roundhead cause was lost, and hastened to carry over his talents to the gaining side. For this we do not blame him very severely, although it certainly had been nobler if, like Milton, he had clung to his party. Sir Walter Scott remarks, that Dryden never retracted the praise he gave to Cromwell. In “Absalom and Achitophel” he sneers at Richard as Ishbosheth, but says nothing against the deceased giant Saul. It is clear, too, that at first his desertion of the Cromwell party was a loss to the poet. He lost the chance of their favour, in case a reaction should come, his situation as secretary, and the shelter of Pickering’s princely mansion. As might have been expected, his ancient friends were indignant at the change, and not less so at the alteration he thought proper at the same time to make in the spelling of his name — from Driden to Dryden.

He went to reside in the obscure house of one Herringman, a bookseller, in the New Exchange, and became for life a professional author. His enemies afterwards reproached him bitterly for his mean circumstances at this period of his life, and asserted that he was a mere drudge to Herringman. He, at all events, did little in his own proper poetic calling for two years. A poem on the Coronation of Charles, well fitted to wipe away the stain of Cromwellism, and to attract upon the poet the eye of that Rising–Sun, whose glory he sang with more zeal than truth; a panegyric on the Lord Chancellor; and a satire on the Dutch; were all, and are all short, and all savour of a vein somewhat hide-bound. He planned, indeed, too, and partly wrote, one or more plays, and was considered of consequence enough to be elected a member of the Royal Society in 1662. Previous to this he had been introduced, through Herringman, to Sir Robert Howard, son of the first Earl of Berkshire, and a relation of Edward Howard, the author of “British Princes,” and the object of the witty wrath of Butler. Sir Robert, too, had a poetical propensity, and Dryden and he became and continued intimate for a number of years, the poet assisting the knight in his literary compositions, particularly in a play entitled “The Indian Queen;” and the latter inviting the former to the family seat at Charlton, where Dryden met in an unlucky hour his future wife, Lady Elizabeth Howard, the sister of Sir Robert. It was on the 1st of December 1663, in St Swithin’s, London, and with the consent of the Earl, who settled about £60 a-year on his daughter, that this unhappy union took place. The lady seems to have had absolutely none of the qualities which tend either to command a husband’s respect or to conciliate his regard, but is described as a woman of violent temper and weak understanding. Much of the bitterness of Dryden’s satire, some of the coarse licentiousness of his plays, and all the sarcasms at matrimony which he has scattered in multitudes, throughout his works, may be traced to his domestic unhappiness.

Otherwise, the match had some advantages. It broke up, for a time at least, some licentious connexions he had formed, particularly, after a time, one with Mrs Reeves the actress, with whom, having laid aside his Norwich drugget, he used to eat tarts at the Mulberry Gardens, “with a sword and a Chadreux wig.” It secured to him, including his own property, an income of about £100 a-year — a sum equal to £300 now — and which, on the death of his mother, three years later, was increased by £20 more, or £60 at the present value of money. He was thus protected for life against the meaner and more miserable necessities of the literary man, under which many of his unfortunate rivals were crushed; and if he could not always command luxuries, he was always sure of bread.

To improve his circumstances, however, and to enable him to keep up a style of living in unison with his lady’s rank, he must write, and the question arose, what mode of composition was likely to be the most lucrative? Were he to continue to indite panegyrical verses, like those to Clarendon, he stood a chance of having a few guineas tossed to him now and then by a patron, like a crust to an unfortunate cur. Were he to translate, or write prefaces for the booksellers, he might pay his bill for salt, if diligent enough. For Satires as yet there was little demand. The follies of the more fanatical of the Puritans were too recent, although they were beginning to ripen for the hand of Butler; and the far grosser absurdities of the Cavaliers were yet in blossom. There remained nothing for an aspiring author but the stage, which during the previous regime had been abolished. While the French Revolution was in progress, ay, even in the depths of the reign of terror, the theatres were all open, and all crowded; but when Cromwell was enacting his solemn and solitary part, before God, angels, and men, the petty potentates — the gods and goddesses of the stage — vanished into thin air. At his tremendous stamp their cue had been “Exeunt omnes” and if the spirit of Shakspeare himself had witnessed the departure, he would have added his Amen. And had he watched in their stead the gigantic actor treading his trembling stage alone, with all the world looking on, he might have remembered and re-applied his own magnificent words —

“O for a muse of fire, that would ascend

The brightest heaven of invention!

A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,

And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

Then should the warlike Cromwell like himself

Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,

Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword, and fire

Crouch for employment.”

No sooner had this great man passed away, and an earnest age with him, and Charles mounted the throne, than from the darkest recesses of the stews and the taverns, from the depths within depths of Alsatia or Paris, the whole tribe of dancers, fiddlers, drabs, mimes, stage-players, and playwrights, knowing that their enemy was dead, and their hour of harvest had come, emerged in swarming multitudes — multitudes swelled by the vast tribe of play-goers, who had been counting the hours since a Falstaff had made them laugh, an Ophelia made them weep, and a Lear made them tremble. And had this only issued in the revival of the drama of Shakspeare and Johnson, few could have had much to say in objection; for that, in general, was as pure as it was powerful. But, alas, besides them there had been a Beaumont, a Fletcher, and a Massinger, with their unutterable abominations. Nay, the king and courtiers had imported from France a taste which required for its gratification a licentiousness still more abandoned, and to be cast, besides, into forms and shapes, as stiff, stately, and elaborate as the material was vile, and were not contented with pollution unless served up in a new, piquant, and unnatural manner. Our poet understood this movement of his time right well, and determined to conform to it. He knew that he could, better than any man living, pander to the popular appetite for the melodramatic, for the grandiloquent, and for the obscene. He knew the taste of Charles, and that he, above all cooks, could dress up a ragout of that putrid perfection which his king relished. And he set himself with his whole might so to do, and for thirty years and more continued his degradation of genius — a degradation unexampled, whether we consider the powers of the writer, the coarseness, quantity, and elaboration of the pollutions he perpetrated, or the length of time in which he was employed, in thus “profaning the God-given strength and marring the lofty line.”

His other biographers — Dr Johnson, alone, with brevity and seeming reluctance — have enumerated and characterised all Dryden’s plays. We have decided only to speak of them very generally, and that for the following reasons:— 1st, We are reprinting none of them; 2dly, From what we have read of them, we are certain that, even as works of art, they are utterly unworthy of their author, and that in morals they are, as a whole, a disgrace to human nature. We are not the least lenient or indulgent of critics. We have every wish to pity the errors, and to bear with the frequent escapades and aberrations of genius. But when we see, as in Dryden’s case, what we are forced to consider either a deliberate and systematic attempt to poison the sources of virtue, or, at least, an elaborate and incessant habit of conformity to the bad tastes of a bad age, we can think of no plea fully available for his defence. Vain to say, “he wrote for bread.” He did not — he wrote only for the luxuries, not the staff of life. Vain to say, “he consulted the taste of his audience, and suited their atmosphere.” But why did he select that atmosphere as his? And why so much gratuitous and superfluous iniquity in his works? “But he wrote to gratify his monarch.” This would form a good enough excuse for a Sporus, “a white curd of ass’ milk,” but not for a strong man like Dryden. But he was “no worse than others of his age.” Pitiful apology! since, being the ablest man of his day, and therefore bound to be before it, he was in reality behind it, his plays excelling all contemporary productions in wickedness as well as in wit. But his own “conduct was latterly irreproachable.” This we doubt, and Scott doubts so too. But even though it were true, it were damaging, because it would deprive him of the plea of passion, and reduce him from the warm human painter to the cold demon-like sculptor of unclean and abominable ideas. It never can be forgotten, that whenever Dryden translated a filthy play, he made it filthier than in the original, and that he has once and again scattered his satyr-like fancies in spots such as the Paradise of Milton, and the Enchanted Isle of Shakspeare, which every imagination and every heart previously had regarded as holy ground. The only extenuating circumstance we can mention is, that his pruriency was latterly in part relinquished and much deplored by himself, and that his poetry is, on the whole, free from it. In our critical paper, prefixed to the Second Volume, we intend to examine the question, how far an author’s faults are, or are not, to be charged upon his age.

His next poem was “Annus Mirabilis,” published in 1667, and counted justly one of his most vigorous, though also one of the faultiest of his poems. It includes glowing, although somewhat quaint and fantastic, descriptions of the Dutch War and the Great Fire in London. In 1668, by the death of Sir William Davenant, the post of Poet–Laureate became vacant, and Dryden was appointed to it. He was also appointed historiographer-royal. The salary of these two offices amounted to £200 a year, besides the famous annual butt of canary, while his profits from the theatre were equivalent to £300. His whole income was thus, at the very least, equal to a thousand pounds of our money — a great sum for a poet in that or in any age. He published, the same year, an Essay on “Dramatic Poetry,” vindicating his own practice of rhymed heroic verse in plays; — a stupid French innovation, which all the ingenuity of a Dryden defended in vain. It was cast into the shape of a dialogue, — the Duke of Dorset being one of the respondents, — and formed the first specimen of Dryden’s easy, rambling, but most vivid, vigorous, and entertaining prose. No one was ever more ready than he to render reasons for his writings, — for their faults as well as merits, — and to show by more ingenious arguments, that, if they failed, they ought to have succeeded.

At this time we may consider Dryden’s prosperity, although not his powers, to have culminated. He had a handsome income, a run of unparalleled popularity as a playwright; he was Poet–Laureate, a favourite at court, and on terms of intimacy with many of the nobility, and many of the eminent men of letters. The public would have at that time bid high for his very snuff-papers, and were thankful for whatever garbage he chose to throw at them from the stage. How different his position from that of the great blind old man, at this time residing in Bunhill-fields in obscurity and sorrow, and preparing to put off his tabernacle, and take his flight to the Heavens of God! The one heard every night the “claps of multitudes,” — the other the whispers of angels, saying to his soul, “Sister-spirit, come away.” The one was revelling in reputation, — the other was listening to the far-off echoes of a coming fame as wide as the world, and as permanent as the existence of man. To do Dryden justice, he admired Milton; and although he did, and that, too, immediately after Milton departed, venture to travestie the “Paradise Lost” into a rhymed play, as dull as it is disgusting; and although he knew that Milton had called him, somewhat harshly, a “good rhymer, but no poet,” yet he praised his genius at a time when it was as little appreciated, as was the grandeur of his character.

But now the slave, in the chariot of Dryden’s triumph, was about to appear. First came, in 1671, the “Rehearsal,” a play concocted among various wits of the time, including Sprat, Clifford, poor Butler, of “Hudibras,” and chiefly the Duke of Buckingham. The object of this play was to turn rhymed heroic tragedy, and especially the great playwright of the day, under the name of Bayes, his person, manners, conversation, and habits, into unmitigated ridicule. The plan has often since been followed, with various success. Minor wits have delighted in clubbing their small but poisoned missiles, and in aiming flights of minnikin arrows at the Gullivers of their different periods. Thus Pope was assailed by the “Dunces,” whom he afterwards preserved in amber — that terrible old lion, Bentley, by Boyle and his associates; and Wordsworth, by the critics or criticasters of his day. Dryden acted with greater prudence than any of those we have named, except indeed Bentley, who, being assailed upon points involving the integrity of his scholarship, and on which demonstrative contradiction was possible, felt himself compelled to leave his lair, and to rend his enemies in pieces. But Dryden — feeling on this occasion, at least, that a squib, however personal and severe, cannot harm any man worthy of the name; and that the very force of the laughter it produces, drives out the sting — determined to answer it by silence, and to bide his time. “Zimri,” in Absalom and Achitophel, shows how deep had been his secret oath of vengeance, and how carefully the sweltered “venom” had been kept, in which at last he baptizes Buckingham, and embalms him at the same time for the wonder and contempt of posterity. Here is the danger of the smaller wits in a controversy of this kind. Their squibs excite a sensation at the moment, and sometimes annoy the assaulted giant much, and his friends and publishers more; but he continues to live and grow, while their spiteful effusions perish; or worse, are preserved to the everlasting shame of their authors, on the lowest shelf of the records of their enemy’s fame.

Two years after, occurred the famous controversy between Dryden and Settle. Poor Elkanah Settle seemed raised up like another Mordecai to poison the peace and disturb the false self-satisfaction of Dryden, — raised up, rather — shall we say? — to wean the poet from a sphere where his true place and power were not, and to prepare him for other stages, where he was yet destined far more powerfully to play his part. At all events, this should have been his inference from the success of Settle. It should have taught him that a scene where a pitiful poetaster, backed by mob-favour and the word of a Rochester, could eclipse his glory, was no scene for him; and he ought instantly, with proud humility, to have left the theatre for ever. Instead of this, he fell into a violent passion with one who, like himself, had levelled his desires to the “claps of multitudes,” and had ravished the larger share of the coveted prize! And so there commenced a long and ludicrous controversy — dishonourable to Settle much; to Rochester and Dryden more — between a mere insolent twaddler and a man of real and transcendent genius. The particulars of the struggle are too humiliating and contemptible to deserve a minute record. Suffice it, that Dryden, assisted by his future foe, Shadwell, wrote a scurrilous attack on Settle, and his successful play, “The Empress of Morocco;” to which Settle, nothing daunted, replied in terms of equal coarseness, and that Rochester, the patron of Settle, became mixed up in the fray, till, having been severely handled by Dryden in his “Essay on Satire,” — a production generally, and we think justly, attributed to Mulgrave and Dryden in conjunction, — he took a mean and characteristic revenge. He hired bravoes, who, waiting for Dryden as he was returning, on the 18th December 1679, from Will’s coffee-house to his own house in Gerard Street, rushed out and severely beat and wounded him. That Dryden was the author of the lines on Rochester has been doubted, although we think they very much resemble a rough and hurried sketch from his pen; that Rochester deserved the truculent treatment he received in them, this anecdote sufficiently proves. It was partly, indeed, the manner of the age. Had this nobleman existed now, and been pilloried by a true and powerful pen, he would, in addition to his own anonymous assaults, have stirred up a posse of his creatures to assist him in seeking, by falsehoods, hypercriticisms, and abuse, to diminish the influence and take away the good name of his opponent. The Satanic spirit is always the same — its weapons and instruments are continually changing.

Soon after this, Dryden translated the Epistles of Ovid, thus breathing himself for the far greater efforts which were before him. His mind seems, for a season, to have balanced between various poetic plans. On the one hand, the finger of his good genius showed him the fair heights of epic song, waiting to be crowned by the coming of a new Virgil; on the other side, the fierce fires of his passions pointed him downwards to his many rivals and foes — the Cliffords, Leighs, Ravenscrofts, Rochesters, and Settles — who seemed lying as a mark for his satiric vengeance. He meditated, we know, an epic on Arthur, the hero of the Round Table, and had, besides, many arrears of wrath lying past for discharge; but circumstances arose which turned his thoughts away, for a season, in a different direction from either Arthur or his personal foes.

The political aspects of the times were now portentous in the extreme. Charles II. had, partly by crime, partly by carelessness, and partly by ill-fortune, become a most unpopular monarch, and the more so, because the nation had no hope even from his death, since it was sure to hand them over to the tender mercies of his brother, who had all his faults, and some, in addition, of his own, without any of his merits. There was but one hope, and that turned out a mere aurora borealis, connected with the Duke of Monmouth, who, through his extraction by a bend sinister from Charles, as well as through his popular manners, Protestant principles, and gracious exterior, had become such a favourite with the people, that strong efforts were made to exclude the Duke of York, and to exalt him to the succession. These, however, were unsuccessful; and Shaftesbury, their leading spirit, was accused of treason, and confined to the Tower. It was at this crisis, when the nobility of the land were divided, when its clergy were divided, when its literary men were divided, — not in a silent feud, but in a raging rupture, that Dryden, partly at the instigation of the Court, partly from his own impulse, lifted up his powerful pen, — the sceptre of the press, — and, with wonderful facility and felicity, wrote, and on the 17th November 1681, published, the satire of “Absalom and Achitophel.” Its poetical merits — the choice of the names and period, although this is borrowed from a previous writer — the appearance of the poem at the most critical hour of the crisis — and, above all, the portraitures of character, so easy and so graphic, so free and so fearless, distinguished equally by their animus and their animation, and with dashes of generous painting relieving and diversifying the general caricature of the style, — rendered it instantly and irresistibly popular. It excited one universal cry — from its friends, of admiration, and from its enemies, of rage. Imitations and replies multiplies around it, and sounded like assenting or like angry echoes. It did not, indeed, move the grand jury to condemn Shaftesbury; but when, on his acquittal, a medal was struck by his friends, bearing on one side the head and name of Shaftesbury, and on the other, the sun obscured by a cloud rising over the Tower and City of London, Dryden’s aid was again solicited by the Court and the King in person, to make this the subject of a second satire; and, with great rapidity, he produced “The Medal — a Satire against Sedition,” which, completing and colouring the photograph of Shaftesbury, formed the real Second Part of “Absalom and Achitophel.” What bore that name came a year afterwards, when the times were changed, was written partly by a feebler hand — Nahum Tate; and flew at inferior game — Dryden’s own personal rivals and detractors.

The principal of these was Shadwell, who had been an early friend of Dryden’s, and who certainly possessed a great deal of wit and talent, if he did not attain to the measure of poetic genius. His principal power lay in low comedy — his chief fault lay in his systematic and avowed imitation of the rough and drunken manners of Ben Jonson. In the eye of Dryden — whose own habits were convivial, although not to the same extent — the real faults of his opponent were his popularity as a comic writer, and his politics. Shadwell was a zealous Protestant, and the bitterest of the many who replied to the “Medal.” For this he became the hero of “MacFlecknoe” — a masterly satire, holding him up to infamy and contempt — besides sitting afterwards for the portrait of Og, in the second part of “Absalom and Achitophel.” Shadwell had, by and by, his revenge, by obtaining the laureateship, after the Revolution, in room of Dryden, and no doubt used the opportunity of drowning the memory of defeat in the butt of generous canary which had now for ever passed the door of his formidable rival.

Dryden’s circumstances, at this time, were considerably straitened. His pension as laureate was not regularly paid; the profits from the theatre had somewhat fallen off. He tried in various ways, by prefacing a translation of “Plutarch’s Lives,” by publishing a miscellany of versions from Greek and Latin authors, and by writing prologues to plays and prefaces to books, to supply his exhausted exchequer. His good-humoured but heartless monarch set him on another task, for which he was never paid, writing a translation of Maimbourg’s “History of the League,” the object of which was to damage Shaftesbury and his party, by branding them as enemies to monarchy. In 1682 he wrote his “Religio Laici.”

Not long after, in February 1684, Charles II. became, for the first time in his life, serious, as he felt death — the proverbial terror of kings — rapidly rushing upon him. He tried to hide the great and terrible fact from his eyes under the shield of a wafer. He died suddenly — a member of the “holy Roman Catholic Church,” — and much regretted by all his mistresses; and apparently by Dryden, who had been preparing the opera of “Albion and Albanius,” to commemorate the king’s triumph over the Whigs, when this event turned his harp into mourning, and his organ into the voice of them that weep. He set himself to write a poem which should at once express regret for the set, and homage to the rising, sun. This was his “Threnodia Augustalis,” a very unequal poem, but full of inimitable passages, and discovering all that careless greatness which characterised the genius of the poet.

Charles II. had, at Dryden’s request, to whom arrears for four years had been due, raised his laureate salary to £300. The additional hundred dropped at the king’s death, and James was mean enough even to curtail the annual butt of sack. He probably had little hope of converting the author of “Religio Laici” to his faith, else he would not have withheld what Charles had so recently granted. Afterwards, when he ascertained that an interesting process was going on in Dryden’s mind, tending to Popery, he perhaps thought that a little money cast into the crucible might materially determine the projection in the proper way; or perhaps the prospect produced, or at least accelerated, the process. We admire much in Scott’s elaborate and ingenious defence of Dryden’s change of faith; and are ready to grant that it was only a Pyrrhonist, not a Protestant, who became a Papist after all — but there was, as Dr Johnson also thinks, an ugly coincidence between the pension and the conversion. Grant that it was not bestowed for the first time by James, it had been withheld by him, and its restoration immediately followed the change of his faith. Dr Johnson was pleased, when Andrew Miller said that he “thanked God he was done with him,” to know that Miller “thanked God for anything;” and so, when we consider the blasphemy, profanity, and filth of Dryden’s plays, and the unsettled and veering state of his religious and political opinions, we are almost glad to find him becoming “anything,” although it was only the votary of a dead and corrupted form of Christianity. You like to see the fierce, capricious, and destructive torrent fixed, although it be fixed in ice.

That he found comfort in his new religion, and proved his sincerity by rearing up his children in the faith which his wife had also embraced, and by remaining a Roman Catholic after the Revolution, and to his own pecuniary loss, has often been asserted. But surely there is a point where the most inconsistent man is obliged to stop, if he would escape the character of an absolute weather-cock; and that there are charms and comforts in the Popish creed for one who felt with Dryden, that he had, partly in his practice, and far more in his writings, sinned against the laws of morality and common decency, we readily grant. Whether these charms he legitimate, and these comforts sound, is a very different question. Had Dryden, besides, turned Protestant again, we question if it would have saved him his laureate pensions, and it would certainly have blasted him for ever, under the charge of ingratitude to his benefactor James. On the whole, this passage of the poet’s life is not very creditable to his memory, and his indiscriminate admirers had better let it alone. It would have strained the ingenuity and the enthusiasm of Claud Halcro himself to have extracted matter for a panegyrical ode on this conversion of “glorious John.”

Admitted into the bosom of the Church, he soon found that he must prove his faith by his works. He was employed by James to defend the reasons of conversion to the Catholic faith alleged by Anne Duchess of York, and the two other papers on the same subject which, found in Charles’ strong box, James had imprudently given to the world. This led him to a contest with Stillingfleet, in which Dryden came off only second best. He next, in an embowered walk, in a country retirement at Rushton, near his birthplace, composed his strange, unequal, but brilliant and ingenious poem, “The Hind and the Panther,” the object of which was to advocate King James’ repeal of the Test Act, and to prove the immeasurable superiority of the Church of Rome to that of England, as well as to all the dissenting sects. This piece produced a prodigious clamour against the author. Its plan was pronounced ridiculous — its argument one-sided — its zeal assumed — and Montague and Prior, two young men then rising into eminence, wrote a clever parody on it, entitled the “Town and Country Mouse.” In addition to this, he wrote a translation of Varilla’s “History of Heresies,” and a life of Francis Xavier, the famous apostle of the Indies, whose singular story, a tale of heroic endurance and unexampled labours, but bedropt with the most flagrant falsehoods, whether it be read in Dryden’s easy and fascinating narrative, or in the more gorgeous and coloured account of Sir James Stephen, in the “Edinburgh Review,” forms one of the most impressive displays of human strength and folly, of the greatness of devoted enthusiasm, and of the weakness and credulity of abject superstition.

In spite of all these attempts to bolster up a tottering throne and an effete faith, the Revolution came, and Dryden’s hopes and prospects sank like a vision of the night. And now came the hour of his enemies’ revenge! How the Settles, the Shadwells, and the Ravenscrofts, rejoiced at the downfall of their great foe! and what ironical condolence, or bitter satirical exultation, they poured over his humiliation! And, worst of all, he durst not reply. “His powers of satire,” says Scott, “at this period, were of no more use to Dryden than a sword to a man who cannot draw it.” The fate of Milton in miniature had now befallen him; and it says much for the strength of his mind, that, as in Milton’s case, Dryden’s purest and best titles to fame date from his discomfiture and degradation. Antæus-like, he had now reached the ground, and the touch of the ground to him, as to all giants, was inspiration.

His history, from this date, becomes, still more than in the former portions of it, a history of his publications. He was forced back by necessity to the stage. In 1690, and in the next two years, he produced four dramas, — one of them, indeed, adapted from the French, but the other three, original; and one, Don Sebastian, deemed to rank among the best of his dramatic works. In 1693, another volume of miscellanies, with more translations, appeared. He also published, about this time, a new version of “Juvenal and Persius,” portions of which were contributed by his sons John and Charles. His last play, “Love Triumphant,” was enacted — as his first, the “Wild Gallant,” had been — without success; and it is remarkable, that while the curtain dropped heavily and slowly upon Dryden, it was opening upon Congreve, whose first comedy was enacted the same year with Dryden’s last, and who became the lawful heir of much of Dryden’s licentiousness, and of more than his elegance and wit.

He next commenced the translation of “Virgil,” which in the course of three years he completed, and gave to the world. It was published in July 1697. He had dashed it off with the utmost freedom and fire, and no work was ever more thoroughly identified with its translator. It is Dryden’s “Virgil,” every line of it. A great and almost national interest was felt in the undertaking, such as would be felt now, were it announced that Tennyson was engaged in a translation of Goethe. Addison supplied arguments, and an essay on the “Georgics.” A dedication to the new king was expected by the Court, but inexorably declined by the poet. It came forth, notwithstanding, amidst universal applause; nor was the remuneration for the times small, amounting to at least £1200 or £1400.

So soon as this great work was off his hands, by way, we suppose, as Scott was used to say, of “refreshing the machiner,” Dryden wrote his famous ode, “Alexander’s Feast,” for a meeting of the Musical Society on St Cecilia’s day, — wrote it, according to Bolingbroke, at one sitting, although he spent, it is said, a fortnight in polishing it into its present rounded and perfect form. It took the public by storm, and excited a greater sensation than any of the poet’s productions, except “Absalom and Achitophel.” Dryden himself, when complimented on it as the finest ode in the language, owned the soft impeachment, and said, “A nobler ode never was produced, and never will;” and in a manner, if not absolutely, he was right.

Dryden was now again at sea for a subject. Sometimes he revolved once more his favourite plan of an Epic poem, and “Edward the Black Prince” loomed for a season before him as its hero. Sometimes he looked up with an ambitious eye to Homer, and we see his hand “pawing” like the hoof of the war-horse in Job, as he smelled his battle afar off, and panted to do for Achilles and Hector what he had done for Turnus and Æneas. He meant to have turned the “Iliad” into blank verse; but, after all, translated the only book of it which he published into rhyme. But, in fine, he determined to modernise some of the fine old tales of Boccacio and Chaucer; and in March 1699–1700, appeared his brilliant “Fables,” with some other poems from his pen, for which he received £300 at Jonson’s hands.

This was his last publication of size, although he was labouring on when death surprised him, and within the last three weeks of his life had written the “Secular Margin,” and the prologue and the epilogue to Fletcher’s “Pilgrim,” — productions remarkable as showing the ruling passion strong in death, — the squabbling litterateur and satirist combating and kicking his enemies to the last, — Jeremy Collier, for having accused him of licentiousness in his dramas; Milbourne, for having attacked his “Georgics;” and poor Blackmore for having doubted the orthodoxy of “Religio Laici,” and the decency of “Amphitryon” and “Limberham.”

He had now to go a pilgrimage himself to a far country. He had long been troubled with gout and gravel; but next came erysipelas in one of his legs; and at last mortification, superinduced by a neglected inflammation in his toe, carried him off at three o’clock on Wednesday morning the 1st of May 1700. He died a Roman Catholic, and in “entire resignation to the Divine will.” He died so poor, that he was buried by subscription, Lords Montague and Jeffries delaying the interment till the necessary funds were raised. The body, after lying embalmed and in state for ten days in the College of Physicians, was buried with great pomp in Westminster Abbey, where now, between the graves of Chaucer and Cowley, reposes the dust of Dryden.

His lady survived him fourteen years, and died insane. His eldest son Charles was drowned in 1704 at Datchett, while seeking to swim across the Thames. John died at Rome of a fever in 1701. Erasmus, who was supposed to inherit his mother’s malady, died in 1710; and the title which he had derived from Sir Robert passed to his uncle, the brother of the poet, and thence to his grandson. Sir Henry Edward Leigh Dryden, of Canons–Ashby, is now the representative of the ancient family.

We reserve till our next volume a criticism on Dryden’s genius and works. As to his habits and manners, little is known, and that little is worn threadbare by his many biographers. In appearance he became, in his maturer years, fat and florid, and obtained the name of “Poet Squab.” His portraits show a shrewd, but rather sluggish face, with long gray hair floating down his cheeks, not unlike Coleridge, but without his dreamy eye, like a nebulous star. His conversation was less sprightly than solid. Sometimes men suspected that he had “sold all his thoughts to his booksellers.” His manners are by his friends pronounced “modest;” and the word modest has since been amiably confounded by his biographers with “pure.” Bashful he seems to have been to awkwardness; but he was by no means a model of the virtues. He loved to sit at Will’s coffee-house, and be the arbiter of criticism. His favourite stimulus was snuff, and his favourite amusement angling. He had a bad address, a down look, and little of the air of a gentleman. Addison is reported to have taught him latterly the intemperate use of wine; but this was said by Dennis, who admired Dryden, and who hated Addison; and his testimony is impotent against either party. We admire the simplicity of the critics who can read his plays, and then find himself a model of continence and virtue. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh;” and a more polluted mouth than Dryden’s never uttered its depravities on the stage. We cannot, in fine, call him personally a very honest, a very high-minded, or a very good man, although we are willing to count him amiable, ready to make very considerable allowance for his period and his circumstances, not disposed to think him so much a renegado and deliberate knave as a fickle, needy, and childish changeling, in the matter of his “perversion” to Popery; although we yield to none in admiration of the varied, highly-cultured, masculine, and magnificent forces of his genius.

This web edition published by:

eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005